During a recent class I was teaching online, the conversation turned from story planning, goal setting and the like to the absolutely crappy feeling one can leave a writing conference with after seeing firsthand, and perhaps for the first time, the sheer volume of people, like ourselves, seeking the golden light of publication or at least representation.
As I listened to my students, reflecting on my own depression leaving such events and the hopelessness I have felt in the face of one more rejection, a little voice inside of me piped up and suggested: It doesn’t matter if you get published. Ever.
Needless to say, I found this confusing.
Getting published, you imagine, will shut that crappy voice in your head down. And the crappy voices in other people’s heads when you talk about writing. YOU NEED TO BE PUBLISHED otherwise you’re not a writer, you’re just someone who types. Maybe fast, maybe slow, but, let’s be honest, you’re just typing. So, what the hell was that little voice in my head talking about?
Of course it matters if you get published. But it does not matter to your long-term financial stability if you get published, statistically speaking. It does not impact your wittiness at cocktail parties no matter what is going on in other people’s heads, which probably isn’t about you anyway–you’re just being paranoid. Getting published says nothing about your ability to be a good parent, or a good friend, or whether or not you’re good in bed. It merely means that through a particular kind of search you have connected with one small part of your audience; that is, an agent and an editor and a marketing department liked your book well enough to take a financial risk on it.
How big an audience do we need? Ironically, we might consider someone who had only connected with that agent, editor, and marketing department as more successful than someone who had without benefit of vetting from a publishing house, connected with an audience of thousands — through Wattpad, or Kindle or blogging, for example. You have all heard of books that sold for way too much money, and whose returns were way too small. And success may not look like what you think it does if you do get picked up for publication. An article on npr.org last year has some surprising statistics regarding the sales of award worthy books. To be concise, the number of books sold by authors nominated for the Man Booker last year was of the scale a midsize blog can easily boast if not best. For a new author without a pre-existing social media platform, with the support of marketing and the publishing world, 9,000 copies is a really solid sales number.
This is not a plug for boosting your social media outreach. It’s a plug for making an intentional choice about how you perceive success, to define it in a way that builds from what really matters to you . Because, as our existential friends know, there is no meaning to your publishing but what you ascribe to publication.
If all you crave from publication is recognition, then, off with you. Chase the market, and I wish you luck. If what you need is the connection writing can offer, consider who and where your audience is because it might not be along New York’s clogged avenues. In fact the door behind which your audience waits may have itself moved from the office of a big publishing house to the front door of a local coffee shop.
I believe one of the reasons we seek to publish is not just the vetting, but that external permission publication can give us to continue this weird activity that soothes and consumes our souls. What if instead of seeking that hard-to-get asshole who will love us as long as we’re useful, we cultivate a friends-with-benefits thing with the earnest, well meaning neighbor in smaller spaces? With sales numbers outlined in the NPR article mentioned above, you could connect with a similar number of people by reading out at open mics or starting an account on Wattpad and writing your novel as a serial, just like good ol’ Charlie Dickens, as you conceivably could through a standard book contract. And could we allow the response from that audience to be enough to give ourselves permission to keep at our weird activity? Can you choose a model of success that will keep you at the work, without succumbing to the heart-numbing pain of rejection?
What is the meaning you give publication in your creative life?